Chicago Bears defense facing big challenge in Steelers
Heading into Sunday's game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Chicago Bears already have plenty of experience defending dangerous offenses.
Bears coach John Fox is correct when he says: "It's not like we've played cupcakes the first two weeks, as far as weapons."
The Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both flashed enviable weaponry in defeating the Bears. But the Steelers, who were No. 7 in offense last year, have arguably the best QB-RB-WR trio in all of football with Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
Brown, a sixth-round pick (195th overall) out of Central Michigan in 2010, has averaged 1,579 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in the previous four seasons.
The return of 6-foot-4 sprinter Martavis Bryant from a yearlong drug suspension gives the Steelers the ability to take the top off a defense. Bryant also opens up the middle for Brown, as does Bell, a dual threat runner-receiver.
It took the 6-1, 225-pound Bell just 47 games to reach 6,000 yards from scrimmage, and in NFL history only Eric Dickerson did it in fewer games.
Bell's uniquely patient, upright running style almost makes him appear hesitant at times, but only until he attacks.
"It's unorthodox," said Vic Fangio, the Bears' defensive coordinator. "I don't think there's anybody else like him. But he's very, very effective. He's a big guy, and once he decides where he's going to go, he's a load."
Bell's presence makes it problematic to double-team the 5-10 Brown, who lacks size and great speed but is a threat all over the field.
"Because of the balance of their offense … we'll pay (Brown) some attention, but you can't do it all the time," Fangio said. "We're going to have to be able to stand up and cover him (1-on-1) and play him without any special help some of the time."
The Bears expect to get a boost from the return of cornerback Prince Amukamara (ankle), who is expected to make his 2017 debut Sunday. The seven-year veteran corner knows the Steelers utilize Brown in a variety of ways.
"Even though he's a small guy, they still throw him the 'go' balls, and he just flat-out works every down," Amukamara said. "He's a workhorse, and he has a strong heart. The competitor in him is crazy. But we have guys on our side of the ball who are just as competitive, and you just have to out-compete a guy like him."
The Steelers' ringmaster, as he has been for 14 years, is the burly 6-5, 241 Roethlisberger, who has had just two seasons with a passer rating under 90.1 -- none in the previous eight.
"He's played at a high level for a long time," Fox said. "He can make all the throws. He's not exactly a scatback type of guy in the pocket. But he does have good pocket awareness, and he can slide up, and he's big and strong enough that he's a hard get-down on the sack."
Getting to Roethlisberger isn't nearly as difficult as getting him on the ground.
"It's size; it's strength," Fox said. "He's not overly mobile, but he does avoid pressure, and he extends plays."
There isn't a defense that "Big Ben" hasn't seen, and because of his knowledge and experience, he has earned the freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. His ability to keep plays alive forces defensive backs to cover longer, and his legendary pump fakes can get them to overcommit.
"He's got a lot of unique qualities," Fangio said. "He's courageous, so he's going to stay alive in the pocket more than most. He's the complete package at this point.
"He hasn't really lost any pop in his arm. He still throws the ball very, very well, accurately, and with pop, and with touch when needed. The guy is going to be in the Hall of Fame some day."
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